With Hollywood on a Box Office Break, Local Titles Step Into Overseas Markets

(l-r) Demon Slayer (image courtesy Toho Pictures), Padre no hay más que uno 2 (image courtesy Sony Pictures Releasing International), Fate of Alakada (image courtesy FilmOne)

The worldwide theatrical market remains in flux, with cinemas domestically and internationally re-closing and re-opening in response to rising Covid-19 numbers and their attendant government restrictions. When cinemas are open, one of the major concerns is what to play—namely, how to make up for a relative lack of Hollywood titles, as only a handful have joined Warner Bros.’ Tenet in theaters over second half of 2020. It’s a dire situation—but one with glimmers of light, as select international markets have had success with local-language titles that at time break even pre-Covid records.

That was the case with Japanese release Demon Slayer, which secured the record for biggest global debut on its opening weekend in October despite only opening in one country. Demon Slayer’s debut broke The Matrix Reloaded’s 17-year-old record for biggest opening weekend in Japan—more than doubling it, in fact, to the tune of 4.62 billion yen. Demon Slayer’s opening cume was in fact seven times that of its closest post-Covid competitor—itself not a Hollywood title (though Japan has consistently been counted among Tenet’s top international markets) but another local release, From Today, It’s My Turn: The Movie.

July saw a successful release of Train to Busan sequel Peninsula in South Korea; October saw Jiang Ziya: Legend of Deification break records in China. And then, of course, there’s China’s The Eight Hundred, the first (and so far only) 2020 release to debut to $100M+. Currently The Eight Hundred sits atop the list of 2020 global grossers, out-earning pre-pandemic Sony release Bad Boys for Life by $34M. If—as some predict—Warner Bros. shifts Wonder Woman 1984 from Christmas to 2021, The Eight Hundred could very well end up the highest-grossing title of the year, the first time such a record would be held by a non-Hollywood release.

Over the last few years, China has emerged as a box office power house, poised to surpass North America as the number one global market. (A record it looks to achieve for the first time this year.) But smaller markets, too, have found success in releasing and aggressively promoting local titles to audiences starved for out-of-home entertainment. One such film is Nigeria’s Fate of Alakada, released on that country’s Independence Day of October 1. Within five weeks of release, it had surpassed the grosses of the previous film in its series, even with capacity restrictions in Nigeria of between 30 and 50 percent. Executive producer Moses Babatope—also group executive director of Nigeria cinema circuit Filmhouse Cinemas—predicts that the film will eventually become one of the top 25 highest-grossing Nollywood titles of all time.

“Certainly, post-lockdown, it is the biggest film” in Nigeria, says Babatope. “We’ve had Tenet released. We’ve had Mulan released. We’ve had Honest Thief released…. And they’re not getting the numbers of what Fate of Alakada has done.” This despite the lack of an extended marketing push, made impossible due to the speed at which Fate of Alakada’s theatrical release came together. “We didn’t know until a week before that we were releasing the film on that date,” says Babatope—a quick turnaround necessitated by the delayed reopening of Nigeria’s biggest market, Lagos, paired with distributor FilmOne’s strong desire to release the film over the holiday weekend. With only a week to publicize the film’s release and much of the marketing materials rendered obsolete due to the inclusion of an April release date, Fate of Alakada took to social media, where the film’s star/producer Toyin Abraham has a substantial following. 

Abraham, says Babatope, has “a brand that people are familiar with” and associate with “pure entertainment, undiluted. Just fun.” That, too, helped the film tap into an audience in need of escapism. “There was a lot of depression and dejection in town, because Covid was taking longer than necessary,” says Babatope. The film, on the other hand, was “presented [as] a fun opportunity. And once people went into the cinema, they were not disappointed,” leading to strong word of mouth over the coming weeks. As of the weekend of November 6-November 8, Fate of Alakada was still the number one film at the Nigerian box office.

Local comedies have also proven successful in France throughout 2020. Aysegul Algan of Boxoffice France highlights titles Tout simplement noir and Les Blagues de Toto alongside a pair of “less mainstream” local comedies—Effacer l’historique and Antoinette dans les Cévennes—which benefited from a wider release than they likely would have gotten pre-Covid. The weekend before France’s second shutdown, notes Laura Houlgatte-Abbott of European trade body UNIC, was its best in terms of admissions since the first Covid shutdown. Local films that contributed to that (albeit temporary) bump in admissions included Adieu les cons (which outperformed the opening weekend of its director’s previous title) and Poly and Petit vampire, which had an opening weekend comparable that of similar titles released pre-Covid. 

Audiences in Spain, meanwhile, flocked to Padre no hay más que uno 2 over the summer. That film, initially scheduled for release in August, was moved forward by distributor Sony Pictures Releasing International, hitting Spanish theaters on July 29. The lack of competition and a pent-up desire to go to the movies helped the comedy sequel to an opening weekend gross that was 60 percent higher than its 2019 prequel, which—needless to say—was not released during a global pandemic. As of September 6, Padre no hay más que uno 2 had passed 1917 to become Spain’s highest-grossing film of 2020.

“National films have their part to play,” in Covid recovery, said UNIC in their 2020 annual report—citing the “fantastic performances[,] considering the local distancing measures” of France’s Tout simplement noir, the Netherlands’ De Piraten van Hiernaast and, in Norway, children’s film Knerten og sjøormen, which outearned Disney-Pixar’s Onward (which had been in theaters for over two months at that point) in ten days upon its release in July. Elsewhere in the world, Adon Quinn of Saudi Arabia-based Muvi Cinemas cites the success of July release Shams Alma’arif (The Book Of Sun), which remained atop that country’s box office for four weeks.

The success of local titles in international markets gives a peek at the demand that exists for new movies—something for domestic exhibitors to look forward to. That sentiment was echoed by NATO CEO and President John Fithian, who said in the closing day of NAC’s ReTreat Week: “We know that there’s light at the end of the tunnel. We know that there will be very strong business once we’re back up, with people feeling safe and new movies [coming out]. Why do we know this? Because we’re looking at China and Japan. In China and Japan, ticket sales are as high as they’ve ever been. Because the virus numbers are low and because they have their own local product. … We know that when people feel safe and when they get new movies, this business will be incredibly strong.”